With Wisconsin Badgers’ head coach Bo Ryan announcing his retirement following the end of the upcoming season, the college game is losing one of its best player-development coaches.
Before Ryan took over at Wisconsin, he spent the 1984-1999 seasons leading the program at Wisconsin-Platteville, a D-III school, to four national championships. For a while, it seemed like Ryan would be a lifer at Platteville, but then the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee came knocking. Ryan took the job for the 1999-2000 season before being lured away by Wisconsin the next year—Bruce Pearl would fill his role at Milwaukee.
In his 14 years at the helm at Wisconsin, Ryan has done more for Badger basketball than any other coach in the program’s history. He’s been responsible for two of the team’s four Final Four appearances, including a trip to the national championship game this past season, and has led the squad to three Big Ten titles and seven Sweet Sixteens.
What made Ryan such a popular, and unusual, figure in college basketball is that unlike John Calipari, whose system attracts the nation’s top players hoping to stick around campus for a year or two before making the jump to the NBA—a strategy that has been adopted by the majority of dominant programs, including this year’s champion Blue Devils—is that he’s relied on four-year player development. See Frank Kaminsky.
Frank Kaminsky, the 2014-15 unanimous National Player of the Year, averaged just 9.0 minutes per game through his first two years in Madison before breaking onto the scene his junior year. As a senior, the seven-footer thoroughly owned the Big Ten, putting up 18.8 points per game, shooting 41.6% from long range—up from his 28.6% freshman-year clip. Kaminsky developed into one of the nation’s best all-around players on both ends of the court, and was consistently the best player on the court.
Kaminsky joined the ranks of Doug McDermott, Jimmer Freddette, and Tyler Hansborough as four-year players that could have left for the draft after their junior year but instead decided to stick around and wreck the league in their final year on campus.
Ryan’s departure means that there’s one less coach around who specializes in developing players like Frank Kaminsky, and that kind of sucks. Not because running a program the way Ryan does is morally superior to how things are done at Kentucky or Duke—let’s not pretend like Ryan wouldn’t have killed to get recruits like Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow—but because coaches like Ryan help add some roundness to the college game. Kaminsky may very well end up being a stiff in the NBA, but he was a legitimate star in college, and that had a lot to do with the fact that he landed at a program that was built to get the most out of him.
This shouldn’t come off as a takedown of the one-and-done culture or a a longing for the days when Jordan stuck around for three years and teams were teams, dammit! It’s not. College basketball is doing fine, and the one-and-doners tend to be more fun to watch. It’s just that with Ryan on the way out, the game really is losing one of its best coaches, and unlike good players, good coaches don’t come a dime-a-dozen.